Making Sure It Isn’t Too Good to be King

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Drasha 11, part 2

Kings are there to make society work, according to Ran, because courts arent there for that purpose.  Instead of seeing the courts as a competing social institution to the king, Ran saw them as fulfilling a different function entirely. The Jewish king was largely the same as non-Jewish ones, which is why the Torah refers to wanting a king like all the nations.

The Torah seems to see it as an appropriate instinct.

What’s Wrong with Wanting a King?

Prior essays in this series

But if that’s true, Ran wonders, why does Shmuel react negatively, in I Shmuel 8, when the people ask just what the Torah told them to? He answers that they wanted a king to replace the halachic courts, not supplement them. For all that Shmuel’s sons did not achieve his excellence, as the verses testify, tradition tells us they did not pervert justice (see Shabbat 55b-56a). Going to them for adjudication would have yielded all the advantages of rabbinic courts, especially increasing the divine presence among the people. Were they to have wanted a king only to fill in the gaps in the practical justice produced, that would have been fine.

They didn’t. They sought one person to fulfill all the functions of leadership, including being the sole source of justice, like non-Jewish kings. That’s how it worked for the nations they knew, that’s how they insisted it had to work for them. Given Ran’s picture of the lacunae in the courts’ ability to guide society, we can understand their reasoning; for them, finding a workable course for society was the central, maybe the only, issue.

Losing the Metaphysical, the SupernaturalLosing God

But it loses the divine element, and it was problematic for Shmuel that the people were so willing to forego that. That’s why he brought rain, thunder, and lightning during the summer, to show that the Jewish people need not be bounded by the natural. Jews are supposed to be a people for whom the natural and divine mix, in how their justice goes and how their history goes.

This is a live issue in our times, when many observant Jews don’t believe the world can operate outside of nature, particularly in medical issues. (Remember that Ran delivered these drashot in the aftermath of the Black Death, suggesting that his audience also struggled to understand how to react to the plague in a God-aware way ). Faced with a serious illness, many observant Jews are certain that their only options are medical. For such people, the idea of tapping into both natural and divine sources of strength and help is senseless.

To move from the medical to the military (since the direct cause of the people’s request for a king was their fear of Nachash, the king of Ammon), imagine an Israeli army commander today doing what the Scriptural Gidon did, culling 90% of his fighters, to exclude those who had worshipped idols (or, for a contemporary parallel, willingly abandoned observance and faith).

That nonobservant people would be outraged is understandable. Ran reminds us that in Shmuel’s time, in Ran’s time, and in our time, many observant people would be equally certain there was no way it could be reasonable to include the divine in our expectations for how the nation’s future would go.

But the Torah thought it was, according to Ran, which is why it instituted both a king and a Sanhedrin.

Keeping the Torah Close

The king’s broad powers to legislate and punish independent of Torah law explain the commandment that he always have a Torah with him, and read it (or have it read) throughout his days. He could do whatever needed to be done, but had to remember that his goal was to support the construction of as Torah-filled a society as possible.

That’s a model that is also foreign to us, giving power unbridled except by the adjuration to attempt to support and foster the Torah’s overall purposes. In a world where we assume absolute power corrupts absolutely, where we are always aware of the need to watch the watchers (and watch those who watch the watchers), we can find Ran’s view incomprehensible.

He doesn’t address it, I think because our objections weren’t even on his horizons of thought. In his world, power had to be wielded by someone and, he assumes, the more concentrated the power the more effective it is. We have many reasons to worry about that—and I am not claiming that his view of the split between kings and courts is the only way to explain those institutions—but it is still instructive to see Ran’s view. He believed that we must empower a leader even while surrounding him with reminders of what he is supposed to do, what his goals are supposed to be.

Included in that is maintaining his sense of awe before Hashem. He has to be reminded, as often as possible, that his job is to maintain a social and cultural background upon which the service of Hashem could proceed. If he puts a Shabbat violator to death even without the exact evidence a court would have required, it had to be so that people learn better to follow the Torah’s laws, not as an expression of his power.

The extent of that power also carries the danger of arrogance, of the king seeing himself as more important than others, seeing himself as deserving of all that he has. Especially for Ran’s view that the king can do largely as he pleases, arrogance is an ever-present danger. The constant reading from the Torah is aimed at avoiding that as well, לבלתי רום לבבו מאחיו, that his heart not be lifted above his brothers’.

So far, Ran has shown us two communal institutions, one aimed at bringing divine justice and presence to the people, the other focused on making sure our practical needs are met. The last piece of the puzzle, for Ran, is the prophet, who offers both divine and practical help in shaping a healthy Jewish polity.

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